PROPERS: PROPER 19, YEAR C
TEXT: LUKE 15:1-10
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2019.
ONE SENTENCE: The gospel – and the love of God – is for everyone.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin are familiar stories. So is the resentment of those religious authorities who were scandalized by Jesus’ dining with “tax collectors and sinners.”
It is easy for us to feel such righteous indignation. And it feels sogood. The current political environment provides ready opportunities for such feelings – from every direction.
Let me tell you about someone who challenged such simple solutions.
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Will D. Campbell grew up in Amite County, Mississippi. His early days there proved to be a prolific time for that rural, poor, sparsely-populated county. Comedian Jerry Clower and writer Rose Budd Stevens were born just down the road.
Will was reared in the Southern Baptist Church – but he was anything but typical. He accepted a call to the ministry and, after a two-year stint in a small congregation, he became Baptist Chaplain at Ole Miss.
But it didn’t last long. Will was an outspoken proponent of the young civil rights movement. The tension created by his activities led to other pastures. He became a leader of the movement and became a close associate of many of the key leaders – including Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, he was present at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night Dr. King was assassinated. Not fearing for his own life – which was frequently threatened – he went on with his advocacy for equal rights.
But his iconoclastic theology – deeply imprinted in his life – would take a veryinteresting turn.
Will described his theology in these words – which I have cleaned-up a bit: “We are all scoundrels, but God loves us any way.”
He became a chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan. It gave his supporters whiplash. How could he do such a thing? What is he thinking?
I would assume that Will assumed that people first had to hear about God, and he did that by his ministry of presencein the midst of the conflict. Will was adamant about the universal love of God: "Anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian."
Let that sink in.
In the 1990s, Nora and I had the father of a good friend commit some terrible acts. We theorize that he experienced a dramatic personality change, resulting from the accidental death of a teenage daughter some years earlier. He was accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Baptist college and using those funds to finance a secret and scandalous life. He was convicted and sentenced to federal prison.
Will Campbell had known this man in his years at Ole Miss. They were fellow Baptists. He was scandalized by the denomination’s and community’s reactions to the man’s actions. He penned a letter to The Clarion Ledger, the Jackson newspaper, and asked why there was greater concern about what he called filthy lucrethan there was about the life and soul of this man who had gone astray.
That was vintage Will Campbell, who, incidentally, was the inspiration behind cartoonist Doug Marlette’s Will B. Dunn in the cartoon strip Kudzu.
Will wrote what I consider to be the best book I have ever read – Brother to a Dragonfly. It is a profoundly thoughtful book, and one which will have the reader laughing. uproariously one moment, and crying the next.
He also wrote a book about his good friend and my ordaining bishop – And Also with You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma.
Will was a deeply spiritual man with a theology that was both very simple and very complex: We are all scoundrels, but God loves us anyway.
Everyone. Not some. Everyone.
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It is easy to feel pious, self-satisfied, and superior. It is easy to look down on others. Likewise, it is easy to feel unworthy, unloved, and not-up-to-standards.
Sadly, what is known as the human condition makes it even easier.
On the one hand, it is tempting to take the view of the Pharisees: To be prideful; To cast off or to ignore those who seem to be “less than”, or to criticize those who obstruct the way to the right thing.
On the other hand, we find it easy to see ourselves as excluded, beyond the reach of God’s love, and seeing ourselves as outside the covenant community. We know our innermost hearts and we know well the unbaptized corners of our souls.
The Pharisees knew one experience; the tax collectors, prostitutes and notorious sinners knew the other. Both sides were wrong. Each side was yearning for God, but they were at loggerheads.
It is the scandal of the gospel. The church has wrestled with that divine tension for most of its history. Who does not qualify for inclusion? Who is beyond the pale of redemption?
Will Campbell lived in that tension. He embodied the breadth of the gospel. We cannot be good enough to earn, and we cannot be bad enough to escape the divine embrace. Everyone is welcomed at God’s table. Anyone who comes is welcome.
It is hard for us to wrap our minds around this idea. God loves the hater as much as he loves the hated. God loves the despiser as much has he loves the despised. He is open to both. His arms are extended broadly.
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I’ve got to admit: I have felt very self-righteous in the current political environment. I make assumptions about other’s journeys. But that is wrong and not-grounded in a healthy theology.
And I must also admit my discomfort with the idea of a God who does not base acceptance on the life the person has lived. There are many people that I would, personally, consider not worthyof God’s love. I’m sure you have your own list.
I am uncomfortable with the concept that God would love Alton Wayne Roberts, who once threatened me, in the same way as he loved one of the men Alton Wayne Roberts murdered, civil rights worker Mickey Schwerner.
But that is the scandal of God’s grace. Jesus’ example is as clear as it is difficult: He sits with the oppressor and oppressed. He challenges the norms of the culture that says one is more worthy than the other. As Will Campbell said, "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well". Will, seeking to live the generosity of the gospel, sat down with both Martin Luther King and later with James Earl Ray.
All who seek God… everyone who yearns for him… will find a welcome embrace – just like the Prodigal Son.
We are all lost sheep, on some level. We are all lost coins, in some way. The Good News is for us. And for us to share with all people.